Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017

© BARBADOS CONCORDE EXPERIENCE

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Concorde glory

The iconic supersonic jetliner still makes hearts race at this Barbados museum

While it once represented the pinnacle of aviation design and power, British Airways Concorde GB-OAE (Alpha-Echo) now sits permanently entombed within a Barbados building that is one-part pseudo-hangar, two-parts ersatz airport terminal. In its 27-year career, Alpha-Echo and its 19 supersonic siblings ruled the commercial aircraft skies — a flock of gorgeous jetliners representing unrivalled speed and luxury.

Alpha-Echo’s mighty Rolls-Royce engines remain silent; its specially-coated metallic skin cool to the touch; its solid Kevlar wheels forever immobile.

Since its inception, Concorde was always about getting there with pizzazz and panache: on takeoff, Concorde’s engines would leave behind a multi-coloured exhaust plume; upon hitting Mach 1, a thundering sonic boom would be heard.

Flying Concorde — the summit of British-French aviation engineering and expertise — was always about speed, grace and rarefied exclusivity. For jetsetters who truly espoused the mantra of “time is money,” Concorde delivered: a London to Barbados flight via Concorde took only four hours (just three and a half hours if the wind was favourable). A subsonic commercial aircraft, meanwhile, required eight and a half hours for the same trip. It’s the difference between a Pontiac Fiero and a Ferrari.

Indeed, Concorde’s cruising speed of 2220 kilometres per hour allowed the aircraft to travel 37 kilometres per minute — more than double the pace of a conventional jet aircraft. And at a cruising altitude of 18,000 metres, passengers — who were virtually immune from turbulence at this lofty height — could actually gaze upon the curvature of the planet. The Concorde was, in aviation parlance, an “earth-shrinker.”

Not surprisingly, in its glory days during the ’70s and ’80s, Concorde was the flying machine of choice for rock stars and royalty, high rollers and high-flying CEOs. But the beginning of Concorde’s sad demise occurred on July 25, 2000.  After enjoying a flawless safety record for more than two decades, Air France 4590 crashed near Charles-de-Gaulle airport on takeoff, killing all 100 passengers and nine crew as well as four people on the ground.

The tragedy was the result of a freak accident: a titanium strip that had fallen off a Continental Airlines DC-10 (which had departed the airport a few minutes earlier) caused one of the Concorde’s tires to rip apart. This, in turn, set in motion a tragic chain of events: a piece of rubber hit the Concorde’s fuel tank, which broke an electrical cable, which ultimately resulted in a catastrophic explosion.

A year later, the economic malaise brought on by 9/11 also impacted Concorde’s viability. By 2003, enough was enough: Air France and British Airways decided to pull the plug and permanently ground the heavily-subsidized Concorde fleet. 

While it’s too late for lottery winners to hop aboard a Concorde and experience a transatlantic supersonic flight, it’s still possible to board Concorde Alpha-Echo and get a whiff of what commuting by Concorde felt like.

Indeed, when Concorde Alpha-Echo touched down in Christ Church, Barbados for the final time on November 17, 2003, the retired aircraft wasn’t mothballed. Rather, it was taxied into a specially-constructed building next door to Grantley Adams International Airport where it sits today — the star attraction of the Barbados Concorde Experience (tel: 246-420-7738; www.barbadosconcorde.com).

So although Concorde no longer graces the skies with its still-futuristic-looking lines, visitors to this pavilion which opened to the public in 2007 can at least see how the other half lived when this aircraft was the flight of choice for the rich and famous.

The Concorde Experience is actually divided into 11 “zones.” The Departure Lounge (Zone 4) is a replica of the famous Concorde Room at London Heathrow Airport. Everything from the furniture to the flatware exudes luxury. Within Zone 7, a flight simulator allows a visitor to get behind the joystick and try his or her hand as a supersonic pilot. Zone 11 is a 93-square-metre gift shop: if anything, at least Concorde will continue to live on in the form of toys, trinkets and T-shirts.

But, naturally, it is the ever-gleaming Alpha-Echo that draws the most oohs and aahs at the Barbados Concorde Experience. Visitors are encouraged to ascend the staircase and tour the aircraft’s interior.

Not surprisingly, the inside of the Concorde resembles a luxury automobile. The seats, for example, are covered in full-grain leather (original cost: US$20,000 per seat). A menu frozen in time indicates that foie gras was offered on bone china along with a selection of fine wines from the galley. So that the glass could cope with the stress of supersonic flight, the windows of the Concorde are about the size of a man’s hand. Aisle passengers, meanwhile, could always catch a glimpse outside by peering through the always-open cockpit doors — something now unthinkable in our post 9/11 era.

 Still, when cruising at the top speed of Mach 2 — quite literally faster than a speeding bullet — sharp-eyed passengers might happen to spot subsonic aircraft lumbering along eight kilometres below.

Although likely grounded forever, the Concorde remains a special type of aircraft along the lines of the Spirit of St. Louis or the Avro Arrow. More than three decades after the first Concorde debuted, this awe-inspiring aircraft remains a technological achievement as well as a design masterpiece.

And yet, as much as the Barbados Concorde Experience makes for an admirable showcase for this iconic jet, a feeling of melancholy permeates this venue where silence has taken hold and a dream has gone to die.

Like a rarefied vintage collector car, the glistening Concorde Alpha-Echo is lovingly cared for; inside and out, the aircraft is immaculate. But at times Alpha-Echo seemingly resembles a peregrine falcon kept in a gilded and cramped cage.

So it is that upon leaving this makeshift museum, one can’t help think how grand it would be to throw open those extra-large hangar doors, taxi Alpha-Echo out into the brilliant Barbadian sunshine and listen to those magnificent engines roar to life yet again so that this Concorde may soar heavenward one last time.

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